Hamas’ fortunes slide with change in Middle East neighbors

McClatchy Foreign StaffJanuary 6, 2014 

— Atef Abu Seif’s latest research project was a study in misery. The Gazan playwright and political science professor had only four hours of electricity a day, from midnight to 4 a.m., to research and write a 30-page study on the effect of drones on Gazan society.

For three weeks he lived as if in another time zone, he recalled in a recent phone call – “waking up at night and sleeping in the day. And even then I had to ask for an extension for two weeks.”

The 1.7 million people who live in the Gaza Strip have been isolated since Israel imposed a blockade on the enclave after the militant Islamic movement Hamas seized power there in 2007. But over the last two years, Hamas has lost its ties with most of the foreign powers that used to supply its budget, weapons and fuel – from Syria to Iran to Egypt. The result is that Hamas, once a rising star as the Arab Spring ushered in a friendly government in Egypt and visits from officials from around the world, has sunk to a new low.

Evidence of Hamas’ financial crisis is everywhere. Last week, Hamas lawmakers approved a budget of $589 million for 2014 – with no way to pay for 75 percent of it. The 47,000 employees on Hamas payroll have received reduced salaries since July. Money is so tight that Hamas canceled its mid-December “Hamas Day” celebrations.

The financial crisis and lack of fuel have a direct impact on electricity, which is limited not only in homes but also in Gaza’s sewage plants, meaning millions of gallons of raw sewage are flowing into the Mediterranean Sea – and onto city streets.

“I don’t think frustration is even the right word,” said political scientist Mukhaimar Abusada, who teaches at Gaza’s Al-Azhar University. “But who to blame – that depends on who you to talk to.”

Hamas’ current troubles date to January 2012, when its leadership left Damascus to protest Syrian President Bashar Assad’s suppression of a rebellion. The move was popular with those who wanted Assad to fall, but it angered one of Assad’s biggest supporters, Iran. As a penalty, Iran, which had also been a major backer of Hamas, cut off funding and weapons deliveries to Gaza.

That blow was manageable, as long as Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas’ spiritual mentor, ruled in Egypt. Smuggled goods, from highly subsidized fuel to car parts to livestock, flowed through an extensive network of underground tunnels from Egypt.

All that changed, however, when Egypt’s military seized control of the government and jailed Morsi in July. Egypt destroyed the smuggling tunnels; by October Hamas reported it had lost more than $400 million in revenue from the lost trade.

Hamas’ standing suffered a further downgrade when Egypt’s interim military government declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization.

“Hamas is afraid that Egypt’s decision might lead to them adding Hamas in the future as a terrorist organization, too,” Abusada said.

Without cheap Egyptian fuel, Hamas has been reliant on Israeli imports, which cost twice as much. The situation reached a crisis when a winter storm battered Gaza in mid-December, and only a last-minute injection of $10 million from Qatar kept electricity flowing.

Palestinian local opinion mirrors the weakened international status of Hamas. Pollster Khalil Shikaki found in December that Hamas enjoyed an approval rating of 33 percent in Gaza, a slip from an already low 39 percent in September.

“It’s easy to say Israel is to be blamed as the occupier of the territory who controls the borders, sea and air,” said Abu Seif, the playwright. “But if you are the government it is you who has to be blamed first for shortages of supplies and services.”

Now Gaza residents keep multiple tanks of cooking gas at home, and cooking over wood is common, said Abu Seif. The Israeli press reports that Hamas is also building its own long-range rockets to replace weapons that Iran previously had sent.

Shlomo Brom, former director of the strategic planning division of the Israeli army, said Hamas was keeping a low profile owing to its reduced status. In the last two weeks, Gazan snipers killed an Israeli defense contractor, and Israeli retaliatory airstrikes killed a 3-year-old girl. However, aside from a few stray rockets there have been no sustained, organized attacks on Israel – evidence, Brom says, of Hamas keeping its people quiet.

“It’s good for Israel because it makes containment of the Gaza Strip easier,” Brom said.

Cheslow is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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